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Obama administration proposes rules for how school districts spend money meant for poor kids

Education Secretary John B. King Jr. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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The Obama administration released draft rules Wednesday that would govern how school districts allocate billions of Title I dollars meant to educate poor children, one of Capitol Hill’s most hotly contested education issues since Congress passed a new federal education law late last year.

The debate has pitted the Education Department and its allies in the civil rights movement, who say they are trying to ensure that children in high-poverty schools get the federal aid they are due, against a wide range of opponents — including Republicans, teachers unions and district and state education leaders — who have accused the Obama administration of overreaching its authority and threatening to introduce chaos into district budgets and classrooms nationwide.

The new draft rules released Wednesday reflect changes that the Education Department incorporated after its initial proposal received a barrage of criticism, but it’s clear that the changes have not addressed all of those complaints.

Senator: The Obama administration is trying to skirt new federal education law

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee, said the administration’s proposed rule would unlawfully regulate nearly all of a district’s state and local spending and would upend collective bargaining agreements between teachers unions and districts. “If anything resembling it becomes final, I will do everything within my power to overturn it,” Alexander vowed.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House education committee, called the proposal a “multibillion-dollar regulatory tax” that would “unleash havoc on schools and their students at a time when education leaders should be focused on helping children succeed in the classroom.”

Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, praised the administration for trying to respond to feedback. But Minnich said that the proposal would still force school districts to reshuffle resources every year to comply, and still runs counter to the new federal law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — which shifted significant authority over education from the federal to state and local governments.

The administration says its rules comply with the law and amount to overdue civil rights protections for poor children.

“For far too long the students who need help the most have gotten the least,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said. “No single measure will erase generations of resource inequities and there is still much more work to do. … But today’s announcement is a concrete step toward closing these gaps.”

At issue is the portion of the Every Student Succeeds Act that requires school districts to use Title I dollars in addition to — not instead of — state and local money. The outlines of that provision — known as “supplement not supplant” — has been in place for decades, and is meant to ensure that districts don’t underfund schools in poor neighborhoods and then use federal aid to make up the difference.

Many school districts are living up to the law, but thousands of high-poverty schools are being shortchanged, receiving less state and local money per pupil than more affluent schools within the same district, according to the Obama administration.

Earlier this year, the administration floated a proposal that would have required school districts to fix that issue by demonstrating that state and local per-pupil funding in Title I schools is at least equal to the average per-pupil spending in non-Title I schools.

Leading Republicans accused the administration of trying to unilaterally rewrite the law because the proposal appeared to require districts to include teacher salaries in their calculations of equitable spending — a policy that Congress expressly forbade in the Every Student Succeeds Act and that might also force some teachers to transfer to different schools to equalize spending.

Education officials say they’re trying to protect poor children. A senator says they’re trying to break the law.

Teachers unions also objected, as did state and local superintendents, who said the administration’s proposal was impractical and would thrust districts nationwide into chaos, including by forcing large numbers of teachers to transfer to new buildings.

The department’s new proposal, made public on its website Wednesday and expected to be published in the Federal Register next week, maintains its original proposal but also offers districts three additional options to demonstrate compliance with the supplement not supplant provision. Those options are:

  • Adopt a funding formula that sends more money to schools for disadvantaged students, such as those who are poor, who are learning English as a second language or who have disabilities.
  • Adopt a formula to allocate staff and non-personnel resources to schools. Districts would show that Title I schools are getting the money they’re due, according to the Education Department, “as measured by the sum of (1) the number of personnel in the school multiplied by the district’s average salaries for each staff category, and (2) the number of students in the school multiplied by the district’s average per-pupil expenditures for non-personnel resources.”
  • Adopt an alternative test developed by the state and approved by a panel of expert peer reviewers.

Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the draft rule “an important step toward improving an intolerable status quo.” Democratic leaders Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) praised the Education Department for pushing for more support for high-poverty schools, for setting clear expectations for honoring “Congressional intent to empower local leaders.”

The Education Department said that the proposed rule would ensure an additional $2 billion in spending in high-poverty Title I schools. But a key question is where those billions would come from: Would state and local taxpayers make new investments? Or would money — and faculty — be shifted from more affluent schools?

The agency said it would like to see districts comply not by forcing teacher transfers or by shifting resources but by devoting more money overall to education. That could be a difficult sell in states and districts where education funding has yet to recover from the hit it took during the housing crash and subsequent recession, and where many schools are struggling with tight budgets.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, offered qualified support for the proposal, saying her union fundamentally agrees with the push to fund schools equitably. But as they are written, Weingarten said, the draft rules are “an unfunded mandate from Washington that exhorts districts to boost their investment in schools with disadvantaged children without identifying or compelling the resources to do so.”

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said that the new proposal is “miles better” than the previous one. But she said that the union does not believe that equalizing expenditures in high- and low-poverty schools is enough to ensure equal opportunities; she said the NEA will push for new requirements that schools report what programs and services they offer, so parents and policymakers can see how and where poor children are not getting what they need and deserve.

“This is about a child’s civil right to have what they need in their school to learn,” she said.

The Education Department must accept and respond to public comments on the draft rule before issuing a final rule.

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